The Santa Cruz City Council voted five to two to approve a new city ordinance to ban overnight sleeping in much of Santa Cruz last week. This ordinance, targeted at the houseless community, could have been projected months ago as a new City Council took office. With a new five to two moderate majority, city council saw a drastic change from the progressive majority that started the previous term.  

Santa Cruz, is often thought of as a progressive stronghold, but in reality its voting patterns are far more nuanced. How did we get here?

Although the city of Santa Cruz is a Democratic stronghold, there are deep divisions between its moderate and progressive constituents. Two voting blocs emerged on the council after the failure of Measure M, a divisive 2018 proposition to enact city rent control measures that the council’s four progressive members supported.

City Council Make Up (Dec. 2018 to Dec. 2019)
Progressive WingModerate Wing
Vice Mayor Justin CummingsMayor Martine Watkins
Sandy BrownDonna Meyers
Chris KrohnCynthia Mathews
Drew Glover

City Council Make Up (April 2020 to Dec. 2020)
Progressive WingModerate Wing
Mayor Justin CummingsVice Mayor Donna Meyers
Katherine BeiersRenee Golder
Sandy BrownCynthia Mathews
Martine Watkins
City Council Make Up (Dec. 2019 to Mar. 2020)
Progressive WingModerate Wing
Mayor Justin CummingsVice Mayor Donna Meyers
Sandy BrownCynthia Mathews
Chris KrohnMartine Watkins
Drew Glover

City Council Make Up (Dec. 2020 to Present)
Progressive WingModerate Wing
Justin CummingsMayor Donna Meyers
Sandy BrownVice Mayor Sonja Brunner
Renee Golder
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson
Martine Watkins

The division came to a head in the March 2020 primary, when Council Members Krohn and Glover were recalled due to their voting record on houseless issues and allegations of workplace misconduct. Their replacements, progressive Katherine Beiers and moderate Renee Golder, flipped city council to a moderate majority. 

Two progressive candidates, Kayla Kumar and Kelsey Hill, announced their candidacies for City Council in midsummer. Their elections would have reclaimed the progressive majority lost in the spring, but come November, neither candidate got the votes they needed.

Final Results
Sonja Brunner
Martine Watkins
Sandy Brown
Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson
14860 (44.76%) 
14616 (44.03%)
14465 (43.57%)
13157 (39.64%)
Kayla Kumar
Maria Cadenas
Kelsey Hill
Elizabeth Conlan
Alicia Kuhl
11680 (33.18%)
10397 (31.32%)
9513 (28.66%)
6802 (20.49%)
5422 (16.33%)

The Results. A Lost Chance In The Absence of UCSC Votes

Reflecting on their defeats, Kumar and Hill said they could have reached out to voters earlier. However, they don’t attribute their loss to voter opposition to progressive policies, but instead to their inability to efficiently get their message across to voters during a campaign season cut short by COVID and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. 

“One thing that I heard from folks this year was that they had trouble differentiating between the moderate and progressive slate. So I don’t think folks were anti-progressive or not backing progressives,” Kumar said. “I think progressives have had trouble really communicating the complexity of progressive solutions in bite sized rhetoric and language that’s accessible to the average everyday person in Santa Cruz” 

Hill, Kumar, and Brown believe that even with their bloc’s underperformance at the ballot boxes, a progressive constituency still exists in Santa Cruz.

“The fact that I won is significant in the sense that it bodes well for progressive politics,” Brown said. “I have continued to take the positions I have over my four years, and I’m identified as a pretty ‘lefty’ representative and I still got reelected.” 

One major difference between the City Council elections in 2018 and 2020 was the absence of  many UCSC students due to the pandemic. In the 2018 general election, 2,490 on-campus students voted in Santa Cruz, compared to 606 in 2020.

In 2018, progressive-backed candidates Justin Cummings and Drew Glover received 70 percent and 64 percent of the on-campus vote, respectively, while moderate electee Donna Meyers received only 22 percent. On the same ballot, 85 percent of on-campus voters favored Measure M despite its citywide defeat.

Between the 2018 and 2020 general elections, student representation in the Santa Cruz electorate dropped from 8 percent to 1.8 percent. It was a decisive loss of voters for the 2020 election, where Kumar trailed Kalantari-Johnson for the last spot by a margin of less than 1,500 votes. 

“I think it also shows the power of young people. We had a lot of students that weren’t able to vote in this election. Our full electorate was not here this election,” said Kumar. “I think we see what happens to local politics, we’re missing that key perspective. Pretty much the moderate slate just had a pretty easy walk into office.”

Santa Cruz Campaigning 101: Networks, Recognition, Money

Candidates had to campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic and the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, but unhealthy air quality due to wildfires and the potential for COVID-19 transmission made it dangerous for volunteers to canvas and knock on doors. Candidates switched to largely digital campaigns, a move that Hill says took a toll on her and her campaign team. 

“A volunteer operation is extremely difficult to operate in terms of a digital interface. It’s really hard to get people to come to Zooms over and over again,” Hill said. “One of the positive parts of campaigning in person was kind of the volunteer party aspect to it, you get to all come together and make calls and order a pizza. That social element was lacking in a COVID campaign.”

Although Hill and Kumar routinely campaigned with fellow progressive Brown, their campaigns struggled with an inability to connect with voters face-to-face or through expensive physical means, like mailers. The moderate trio of Watkins, Brunner, and Kalantari-Johnson outraised the three by 27 percent.

“I think the big elephant in the room is money. The progressives are known for walking and we are known for calling, but we are not known for sending out glossy mailers after glossy mailers,” Hill said. “I think that in a COVID campaign, when physical resources may talk more than things like forums or policies do, the progressives definitely were the underdog in that capacity.”

Despite her relative lack of name recognition, Kalantari-Johnson received the endorsement from Santa Cruz Together (SCT) and Santa Cruz United (SCU), local political groups formed to oppose the passage of Measure M and support the recall campaign, respectively. For Kalantari-Johnson and fellow SCT and SCU endorsed candidates, Brunner and Watkins, having the two organizations’ support proved to be influential. 

“The success of our organizations is largely due to communication and networking in this small town,” said SCU organizer Carol Polhamus in an email. “As we have worked together on issues, our groups have gotten stronger, and our communication more effective. When you work together, you build relationships and trust that endure.”

Using funding assistance and harnessing political firepower from SCT, SCU raised over $130,000 to support Krohn and Glover’s removal from office, with SCT providing a significant amount of it. Campaign finance forms show SCT received several large contributions from individuals and entities associated with real estate and property management.

Records of these contributions sparked criticism from anti-recall and progressive advocates accusing SCT and SCU of trying to sell out Santa Cruz to real estate interests.

Polhamus said this criticism is a long-standing misrepresentation that opposition to Measure M and support for the recall was funded by “outside money.” She acknowledges that while the California Apartment Association supported the “No on Measure M” campaign, it is inaccurate to say that “big, corporate money” funded the recall.

“No one wants to dig enough to find the facts, even though it is all public information on the city’s website,” said Polhamus in an email. “Santa Cruz Together fundraised to fight Measure M.  Santa Cruz Together also fundraised and helped fund the recall. Santa Cruz United also fundraised for the recall, which was funded by local people of all occupations and interests.” 

To Kumar, it’s a realization on how much needs to be done for a candidate like her to succeed in the future. 

“My campaign did actually quite well as a first-time, non-establishment candidate that wasn’t backed by super big money. The more moderate candidates did quite well, and it speaks to how entrenched that power structure is,” said Kumar. “It’s well organized and certainly well funded. For progressives, it’s a lesson, if we’re willing to learn it, about where we stand in the community.”

Candidates By Total Contributions Received
Shebreh Kalatari-Johnson$36,197
Kayla Kumar$32,439
Martine Watkins$30,924
Sonja Brunner$29,402
Sandy Brown$22,360
Kelsey Hill$21,088
Maria Cadenas$14,055
Elizabeth Conlan$5,046
Alicia Kuhl$4,246

The New Council

In the aftermath of the recall and the seating of the new council in the spring, the public drama that stained the past council seemed to wash away. For Council Member Justin Cummings, it’s a change for the better and one that would not have happened if the recall was rejected.  

“I feel that the overall tone of our conversations has really been one of trying to find consensus on issues and trying to really hear each other out,” said Cummings. “Which has been really productive for us. To be able to disagree, but not make it personal.” 

Entering the chamber as a freshman member, Kalantari-Johnson is aware she did not receive votes from all demographics of the Santa Cruz community, but believes that she can represent the voices of those who both did and did not vote for her.

“I would encourage students to reach out to me if there’s an issue that they feel strongly about,” said Kalantari-Johnson. “If they see that what I’ve said or done is not aligned [with their views], reach out to me and educate me, because they’re coming in with a lot of knowledge. Educate me and be open to me educating them, so that we can learn from each other.”  

Although she’s part of a progressive minority, Brown said she agrees on most of the decisions made by the council. Follow progressive member Cummings echoes that sentiment, believing that while he will be in a minority on certain issues, the chances of getting progressive legislation like environmental protection and equity inclusion passed still remain.

Cummings notes that progressive policies on housing like rent control measures won’t get passed without the progressive votes needed to support it.  

“I don’t think we’ll get the support we need to make it happen these days,” said Cummings. “I’m not optimistic that we’ll see it happen anytime soon.”